Tomorrow night the Imps head to the Kassam Stadium to face Oxford in their third away game of the season, writes Tom Morton.
The U’s are a team with a lot of personal history for me. When I was a teenager we always used to follow how Oxford were doing in the higher leagues because they were my Grandads team. He was never particularly interested in football but always talked about them when we visited. After my early teens, I was never much of a premier league fan. So in some senses, Oxford might have been my “other” team.
Then in the 99/00 season, they joined us in the third division. Oh, man. Let’s just say that when a team turns up to Sincil Bank today with players 6ft tall and 4ft wide and proceed to bash us around the place I refer to them as “doing an Oxford”. Those early noughties teams were rough and tough and very mean. That said, we did OK during that era winning five out of ten encounters before Oxford, who had been in freefall from the 2nd tier since the early 90s, exited the EFL in 2005.
Anyway, that is ancient history. Tomorrow’s game is a fresh slate of sorts and one with a lot of promise and certainly much to prove. We played this fixture at roughly the same time last season (28th August 2021) and I think it was the point, five games into the season, most of us felt like we might be up for a tough one. The team looked out of sorts and slumped to defeat at the hands of a James Henry hattrick.
Henry is still there, along with others, but it is a pretty changed side we will face at the Kassam tomorrow. Way back the U’s were struggling with some long-term players injured -forcing them to use loans and play people out of position (in 2021 I was impressed with Anthony Forde at Left-Back but he’s gone down to non-league this season). It seems like manager Karl Robinson, who has been with Oxford since 2018, now has the team he is looking for.
That said, their start to the season has been mixed with one win and two losses chalked up. Looking at the highlights of their loss to Bristol Rovers at the weekend I’d say that some of the challenges we’re facing are true for Oxford also. The centre-back pairing of the tenured Elliot Moore and newbie Stuart Findlay look like they still need time to get used to each other – several times Bristol got players goal-side between the pair and the goal ultimately felt like a mixup in the defensive line following a set piece.
So they are going to be vulnerable to direct play. In keeping with tradition, though, they have a tall squad so the long ball might need some work to ensure we get a chance at the second ball. Also in keeping with my memories of years ago, they are fourth in the league for cards already – having racked up seven yellows in three games. I’m not being too judgemental (we are eighth with five and they scored better than us on Fairplay last season) but it points to expecting a physical conflict.
It’s hard to anchor to stats at this point in the season but I think it is likely we can put goals past The U’s. They do look uncertain at the back in highlights which looks exploitable. After Saturday’s game, I feel tentatively confident to say we have one of the best wingers in the league in Jordon Garrick and it will be exciting to see what he can do running at their back line.
Tactically, Oxford will line up 4-2-3-1. Upfront will be Matty Taylor in a proper number 9 role. Oxfordshire-born, Taylor rejoined The U’s in 2019 and very much leads from the front both in terms of the role and goals. Last season he racked up 22 across all competitions to go with 19 and 17 in the preceding seasons. If you check out the heatmaps of his play you see an out-and-out 9 with two spots – one midway to the penalty area (taking the first ball) and the other on the edge of the six-yard box. He is quick into the box, definitely an area we’ve felt a little weak on recently, so Poole and O’Connor will need to keep very tight.
Also, keep an eye on Cameron Brannagan and of course Henry. The former was worth 14 goals last season and is very handy on the left side and from set pieces. Henry scored 7, three of which naturally were against us. He is more progressive than Brannagan and a threat with deep looping crosses.
Overall there is a lot to be hopeful for tomorrow night. We’ve not started badly – as much as it was frustrating to let go of the win on Saturday it was in 35-degree heat and you can’t help feeling we’d have thrown away even the draw last year by failing to hold on in the dying minutes. I’ve argued on Twitter that Forest Green were tactically better on the subs given the heat, but we saw much better commitment from our players. It feels like it’s just a matter of time, and players like Garrick lighting up play, to get to that first win and start to feel comfortable. It would something of a redemption for it to be tomorrow at Oxford, as it defined our season last year so it could do again in a positive light.